Playhouse Creatures review at New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme – ‘a funny, feminist triumph’
April de Angelis’ 1993 play Playhouse Creatures is a witty and poignant backstage drama that explores the moment in history when lustrous-locked monarch Charles II reopened the theatres and allowed women on stage for the first time.
In Zoe Waterman’s compelling production (her first as associate director of the New Vic) five of the era’s female actors – Mrs Farley, Mrs Marshall, Mrs Betterton, Doll Common and, of course, Nell Gwyn – congregate amid the clustered candlesticks, petticoats, feathers and flowers of the tiring room. Rivalries and bonds are formed, but De Angelis’ rich and colourful writing never slips into sentimentality. Instead, the precarious nature of being a female on stage is sharply delineated – they are othered beings, like the dancing bears of the pit, figures of wonderment and revulsion, easy prey for the patriarchy.
There’s a wonderful crescendo of collective antic energy when the defiant Mrs Marshall (Danielle Henry) creates a wax voodoo doll of her former lover and ‘keeper’, the earl of Oxford, who persists in hounding her with verbal and scatological attacks.
The cast are uniformly excellent. Polly Lister gives a bravura performance as high-minded thespian Mrs Betterton, longing for a part that can match the “poison” of her past Iagos and Hals. As Nell, Hannah Edwards is charming, comic and canny in equal measure, casually disparaging her royal lover’s daddy issues (“he keeps going on and on about the blood and slicing. My mum died pissed with her head in a puddle”). This is a funny, feminist triumph.
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